Don’t let her high-wattage smile, poise or star power fool you. Alanna Saunders is diamond tough.
One of the stars of “Peter Pan” at the Children’s Theatre, Saunders sprained her ankle last week during a performance. But she was not going to let it stop her from getting back on stage as Wendy Darling, or enjoying the Minnesota spring.
So, on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Saunders, who lives in New York with her identical twin sister (also an actor), ambled over to Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis for lunch.
On the sidewalk patio at Copper Hen Cakery & Kitchen, Saunders put her foot up on a chair and ordered a BLT. She explained that she was coming down onstage steps when she heard a little girl in the audience insistently calling her character’s name. She looked up to acknowledge the girl and misplaced her foot, which twisted as her weight came down on it. Adrenaline dulled the pain and she finished the performance.
Calling the sprain “nothing,” even though it caused a noticeable limp and requires physical therapy, Saunders was back on stage the next day. It was a little hiccup on what seems like a meteoritic rise. Fresh out of theater conservatory training at the University of Miami last year, she was cast as Tiger Lily in the live NBC telecast of “Peter Pan.” The December telecast, seen by millions, made her a star. The TV casting directors saw in her the same things that Peter Rothstein, who directed “Pan” at the Children’s Theatre, did.
She has openness, charisma and range, which is essential for a role like Wendy, who is at first a teenager dealing with new love and loss, and then a melancholic middle-aged mom.
“In many ways Wendy is the emotional center of the story,” Rothstein said. “Alanna navigates the emotional roller coaster of this piece with an authenticity that is quite remarkable and, in my opinion, beautiful.”
Acting dynasty in making?
Saunders, who is earning her Equity union card playing Wendy, comes by her gifts from study and familial osmosis. Her parents met at the University of Virginia, where both were involved in music. Her father enlisted in the Navy and the family followed him, settling in Kirkland, Wash., where Saunders grew up.
Her parents divorced when she was little, but her mother, who became a software engineer at Microsoft, kept pushing her children’s dreams. Today, of the five Saunders siblings, only the eldest, who teaches music at a school in Washington, is not involved in show business.
The other four are in New York.
Saunders’ brother, Trent, understudies the title character of “Disney’s Aladdin” on Broadway. He went on the night Alanna was performing live on NBC.
“He also went on the next night, and we were able to see him then,” she said.
Another brother, Heath, performed in “Lennon: Through A Glass Onion.” Alanna’s twin, Claire, will appear in Nancy Meyers’ upcoming film “The Intern.”
Saunders said she and her sister knew that they could not go to the same college. For starters, they would be trying out for the same parts. They also wanted to have separate identities for the first time in their lives. Claire graduated from the conservatory training program at Carnegie Mellon.
“We’ve all been singing and acting since before we can remember,” Alanna said.
That may have prefigured her destiny, or not. She also thought of going into medicine. But she found that such weighty interests caused acting programs at some schools to doubt her commitment to the craft.
Saunders has light green eyes, an often remarked-on feature that she credits to an accident of genetics. Her father is African-American, with a black grandmother who had blue eyes. Her mother is white, with various eye colors in her family tree. The bloodline goes back to slavery on the one hand, and John Adams on the other, with American Indian and other ancestry thrown in.
“We are all-American,” she said of her family.
She remembers that when she was auditioning for the NBC telecast, she straightened her hair and it became easier to see her Native American heritage. As she left the audition that day, a stranger on the street read her aura. She took that as a sign that she would get the TV part.
Saunders played fierce warrior Tiger Lily on TV, a character that has, in recent years, been met with strong objections over two points. The first is that Tiger Lily, in J.M. Barrie’s original, and in the musical adaptation, leads a primitive tribe of Indians with made-up tribal language (the “Ugg-A-Wugg” song). The second is that these stereotypical characters are based on real people when the other characters in “Peter Pan” are fanciful, including Peter and Tinkerbell.
On NBC, Tiger Lily’s ethnicity was changed from Indian to Polynesian. But it did not solve the issue of fantasy and reality. (The Children’s Theatre has made Tiger Lily’s group a girl- gang counterpart to the Lost Boys.) Saunders’ main concern, as an actor, is to transmit the soul of her character.
After the splash at NBC, lots of opportunities arose for Saunders. But she had committed to “Pan” in Minneapolis. She questioned whether she had made the right choice in coming to Minnesota for three months.
“When I first got here, it seemed desolate and a little deserted,” she said. “But now I see it’s vibrant.”
She does not regret her decision to be in this production, where she flies with co-star Tyler Michaels.
“It’s an amazing cast, and Tyler is incredible,” she said. “Everyone keeps telling me that this is the best time to be in Minnesota. I agree. It’s pleasure.”
Sore foot or no.